Go To Part 5
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Cheri - Part 4
Chèri accepted the solid-gold pin with a respectful bow, and stepped back to let the next person receive his pin. The top three examinees for each year always received a token to honor their achievement. The ceremony mostly consisted of a speech by the Emperor congratulating them, and impressing upon them the seriousness of being an Official.
Chèri was impressed that Reiki was able to avoid looking at her except for when he needed to in order to place the pin on her uniform. He maintained a nearly blank expression, and almost seemed like a different person altogether. She had never seen him like this before, and half expected him to try something inappropriate when he touched her houmongi.
The officials all wore the same uniform – with variations depending on the department. The new Officials were all wearing a plain white wafuku, indicating that they didn’t have a department yet. She had expected to wear the same thing, and was surprised when the palace seamstress presented her with the exact same uniform but feminized just slightly to honor her as the first female ever to take and pass the major test.
She studied her new pin as she listened to the Emperor’s speech. It was a small rectangle made out of good quality gold. It depicted a pair of wings which symbolized aiming for the top, and was intended to motivate her to reach for the sky. It also had her name engraved on it which meant that no one else could claim it as their own.
After the ceremony, the trial period began. Each new Official was supposed to work two weeks in every department until they found the best fit for their skills. If – after they worked for each department – they didn’t find a good fit, then they were allowed to withdraw from service, or be placed in reserve. They would be on call to work in any department that needed an extra hand from time to time.
Their first assignments were determined by drawing. The head of each department had taken turns pulling names out of a wooden box and they now called out the names they had drawn. Chèri prayed that she got to start in the Department of Finance. She was certain that they would offer her a permanent job by the end of her two weeks with them.
As it turned out, she was assigned to the Archives. She was disappointed at first, until she realized that this was a great opportunity! She would have access to read reports from all over the palace, and would be able to get a good grasp on the state of things. Knowing that, it would be easy to figure out what needed to be fixed.
In the archives, she was told to start by clearing out all of the dust from ceiling to floor. She wondered if the Minister in charge thought to intimidate her. A normal lady wouldn’t have any idea how to dust, but it was something she had lots of practice at. She pulled a long strap out of her pocket, and used it to bind her long sleeves up and out of the way. She put her hair up, and tied and apron around her waist.
She was told not to bother the Minister again until she was finished, but that didn’t stop others in the department from handing her things to put away. It seemed that everyone wanted to test her determination by piling all the work on her. Chèri had expected this, and accepted all the work with a smile.
It took her 4 whole days to fully dust the archives, wearing a scarf over her mouth so she didn’t breathe any of it in. “When was the last time anybody dusted here?!” Each time someone insisted that she file something, it delayed her by a good 5-10 minutes, but she quickly learned where everything was located, and soon had no trouble dusting and filing reports.
On the 5th day, she kicked everyone out so that she could thoroughly sweep and mop the floor. As she waited for the floor to dry, she brewed a pot of tea, and sat to read some of the reports that had come in that day. They would have bored anyone else to tears, but she was fascinated, and realized that they all shared a similar format.
When the Minister of the Archives returned from his long lunch break, he was astonished to find the place clean and a cup of tea waiting for him on his desk. Chèri had even filed away most of the reports that were waiting to be archived. She knew she was just going to have to do it anyway, and so did it while she had time.
He took a sip of his tea, and watched as Chèri handed out cups to each of the returning staff members. They all looked around, and wondered what to do next. They still had a few hours before they could go home, but there wasn’t much left to do.
They all decided to relax and take it easy. Even the Minister was smiling, and no one could recall him doing so in a while. Chèri stepped up to his desk in order to refill his cup.
“Sir? May I go through the files to make sure they are all filed correctly? As I was dusting, I noticed a misplaced file here and there,” she explained.
“Are your certain they were misplaced?” The Minister asked with a stern frown.
“Well, the files are all archived by date first, and then alphabetically by department. So, for example, this file here should be located under today’s date, and then under P for Palace Affairs. As I said, I did find one or two reports filed under the wrong day or letter, and I would love to make sure there are no other mistakes.”
The Minister took a long sip of tea as he thought this over. When he couldn’t think of a good reason why she couldn’t, he set his cup down, and nodded. “That sounds fine by me.”
“Thank you, sir!” Chèri gushed, and raced off to last month’s records. She had already gone over this month’s records earlier, and corrected the one error she found.
She had nothing better to do on the day of rest – the day when no one had to work – and so spent her time in the archives working on her project. As a result, she literally spent 7 straight days in the Archive. She arrived early each morning, and left late each night. The others would have completely forgotten she was there – since she was constantly busy doing something out of sight – except that she always brought some food to share with everyone. Little things like wontons, rice balls, or filled dumplings.
As time went by, Chèri noticed that her co-workers anticipated the food she brought in so much that they would come searching for her as she worked, and offer to help her out so that she would get done quicker, and they could all take a break. A couple of them even brought her ingredients and requests for her to make something special. By her last day, she was more than half done sorting through the huge archive, and couldn’t decide if she wanted to be placed here permanently or be passed to the next department.
Her co-workers waited for her to take a quick break to relieve herself, and then swarmed around their boss. “We have to keep her, sir! The place is clean, she brings delicious food, and the archives themselves have never looked better!”
Their boss inhaled slowly, and gave a tiny smile. “I agree… Unfortunately, I was told by someone higher up that I cannot keep her. I’d be risking my own job if I did…”
The men all groaned in disappointment. If it was someone higher than the Minister of the Archives, then it could be the Minister of Civil Affairs, one of the 3 Great Advisors, the Highest Advisor, or even the Emperor himself! No one dared disobey a direct order from any of them, and so they knew better than to even suggest it.
When Chèri returned, she was informed that she was not going to remain in this department, and told to report to the Department of Palace Affairs after the day off. She nodded in sad acceptance, and opened the basket full of chicken tempura one of her co workers had provided the ingredients for. More than one man was tempted to ask for her hand in marriage, but she was a true blooded Lady after all, and none of them had noble blood in their veins.
Several months passed in the same pattern, and Chèri began to wonder if someone close to the top wanted her to fail. After all, just about every department warmed up to her by the end of her trial, only to pass her along when the time came. It was hard to accept, and made her doubt her ability to cope. She had to firmly remind herself that she was making a difference, and that it would all work out in the end.
She strode out of the Department of Civil Affairs on her last day there with an invisible fire surrounding her. She’d thought that since her uncle was the Minister of Civil Affairs, she would be guaranteed a place in his department, but even he admitted that he dare not keep her when ordered not to. Angered, she had insisted on speaking with her uncle alone, and dragged him to a small office to ensure that they weren’t overheard.
“WHO is ordering all the departments to pass me on?” She demanded.
“I can’t tell you,” he insisted honestly. At least she knew that it wasn’t him. He had the power to threaten to fire just about anyone, but if he himself was also being threatened, then it obviously wasn’t him trying to push her away.
She gripped the collar of his wafuku with both her hands, and glared at him in determination. “Tell me… is it the Emperor?”
He looked relieved. “No!” He secretly feared that she would continue to push him until he cracked under the pressure, but she sighed in relief, and let him go.
“I see… Thank you for being honest with me,” she murmured, stepping back to a respectful distance. She placed her fist in her palm, and bowed.
“I can tell you this, the one threatening everybody is seriously angry. He was certain that you would slip up or quit by now, but instead of giving up, you have impressed almost everyone,” her uncle praised her, patting her head like she was a small child.
He placed his right fist in his left hand, and bowed to her. “Keep up the good work. Even if you have to join the reserves and only come in when called, eventually he’ll have to give up and accept you as an honest and true government Official.”
Now was the first day in the last department. If she didn’t get a job offer here, she really would be demoted to reserve status. The thought was depressing, but she pushed that to the back of her mind. It wasn’t all bad; she was finally in the Department of Finance!
“Shurin of clan Ruby reporting for duty, sir!” She announced with a respectful bow. The Minister sneered at her.
“You’ve come at the perfect time. I’m working on a tedious report, and all of my workers are ready to drop from exhaustion. I think you should make us some tea to revive our spirits.”
“Of course, sir!” Chèri grinned, and left to follow orders. She returned a half an hour later with the tea and a large basket of sweet bean filled buns. She passed out the buns, and filled everyone’s tea cup.
Smiling, she graciously accepted their grumbled thanks. She finished her task by setting her basket on the Minister’s table, and handing him his bun. He looked confused as he accepted her offering, and unsuccessfully tried to suppress a moan of appreciation as he ate it. She waited until he looked a bit happier.
“Sir, may I ask, what this report is about?”
He sighed, and gave her a brief overview.
“So… you could use someone to go over the numbers and check for calculation errors?” She prompted when he finished.
He gaped at her in surprise for a moment. “Actually… yes.”
He looked towards a two foot tall stack of papers, and then shrugged. He handed her a packet of papers about an inch thick, and then gestured toward the pile. “This is the rough draft of the report, and that is the research material. If you manage to find any errors, double check it against the information in that pile.”
He watched her clear a spot next to the stack of research papers, grab an abacus, and dive right in. He scoffed, “Good luck!”
To Chèri’s great relief, the stack of research papers was well organized, and it was relatively easy to locate the numbers when she needed to verify something. The beads on her abacus flew back and forth, and she had no trouble understanding the information in the report. It was amazingly similar to working on the ledgers for Kiki!
An hour later, people were gaping at her as she worked through the last page. She dipped a thin brush in ink, and made a tiny correction. It was only the third she had found in the entire report, which indicated that the clerks had done their jobs thoroughly and carefully.
She finished with a grin. Just as I’d expect from the Department of Finance! She reorganized the myriad of papers she had scattered about as she worked, and then handed the rough draft back to her boss.
“While not technically an error in the report, I think that some of the allocations are inappropriate. Too much is being given to the Department of Palace Affairs for entertainment purposes, and not enough is being given to the programs that gather food for times of scarcity and the repair works that are still needed after last year’s flood in the countryside,” Chèri voiced her opinion. “I happen to know – since I went over all the plans in the Department of Palace Affairs – that the Emperor hasn’t entertained anywhere near enough to justify spending that amount.”
The Minister was known for his short temper, so it was no surprise to his workers that he roared his reply. “Just who do you think you are that you dare form an opinion on this?! What you think does not matter!”
Chèri bowed apologetically, and then refilled his tea cup. “Sweet bun?”
His strict upbringing in manners took over automatically, and he thanked her as he graciously selected a bun from the basket. He took a bite, and a strange look crossed his face. In a matter of moments, she had completely calmed him down. He thought about what she said.
“Are you certain that the Department of Palace Affairs is requesting far more money than justifiable?” He asked.
“Admittedly it has been months since I worked there, but yes. It was part of my job to project a budget for all the planned events for the year. I think that even after I overestimated the cost to deal with inflation, it was only about 2/3rds this amount.” Chèri decided to give him time to think. “Shall I sweep the floor now?”
Lost in thought, the Minister nodded vaguely to grant permission, and Chèri left to find a broom. He tried to focus on finishing his report, but couldn’t concentrate. He reread the part concerning the budget for Palace Affairs at least three times before tossing it on his table, and standing abruptly.
“You there!” He pointed to his second most senior aide. “Get ready to go audit the Department of Palace Affairs! Choose a couple men to help you, and be ready to go the moment I finish writing the order!”
“Yes sir!” His aide agreed, and began to gather some paper, a jar of ink, some brushes, and his favorite abacus. He pointed to two men he trusted, and they nodded, obviously dreading the impending ordeal. They gathered what they’d need, and stood behind the aide as he waited for the scroll ordering the Department of Palace Affairs to submit to an audit.
They bowed respectfully as the Minister handed them the scroll, and turned to leave. Chèri entered the office as they left. She bowed to them as they passed her, and then walked up to her boss.
“Are they leaving for the day?” She wondered.
“Uh… I guess you could say that,” he replied, and then gestured for her to get on with her work.
Chèri sighed in frustration. Today was her first official day on reserve status, and she had nothing better to do than cook. It was actually a bit strange to cook for just two people when she’d been feeding entire departments for months!
Her pay had been enough to keep them ahead – for once – and her father’s winnings really had paid for all the repairs they needed, so things were going well. Even so, she would only get paid for the actual hours she worked while in reserve status, so she would either need to take on a few odd jobs to keep money coming in, or she would need to go to the Outer Palace nearly daily to offer her services. Experience had proven that every department had something they needed help with, so she was confident that she’d be able to keep busy.
She winced as she accidently sprinkled too much of the salt she’d recently bought into her simmering soup. She tasted it to assess the damage. A frown creased her brow.
“What the… this soup isn’t salty at all! In fact, it’s rather bland,” Chèri murmured to herself. She poured a bit of salt into her hand, and inspected it carefully. It felt grainier than usual, and she licked it. Only about half of the amount caught by her tongue dissolved. The other half remained solid, and she pinched it off her tongue curiously.
“White sand…” A small amount of sand or other “impurity” was normal. Salt was harvested from certain areas of the Empire near the sea, and it was impossible to remove everything from it. Even so, normally those that provided salt to the merchants to distribute prided themselves on ensuring a quality product. This was either from a less ethical new producer, or something had happened to it after it had been sifted.
She shrugged, and finished making lunch. Sho was working late tonight, and so Chèri set his portion aside in a covered bowl, and took her bag of salt back to the market.
“I’m sorry, Lady Chèri,” the woman in charge of the stall apologized. “All the salt I have is like that, and it came to me that way. I didn’t notice until someone else pointed it out to me, and I have two choices, sell it as is at a discount, or sift it to filter out the sand, and then increase the price to cover my loss of product.”
“I see…” Chèri mused. “Thank you.” She wandered around town to the other stalls in the market that sold salt, to find that they all had the same problem. A lengthy walk across the other three “towns” that made up the Capitol City proved that it was the same everywhere.
Chèri went to the Merchant Guild’s main office, and showed them the token that proved she was an Official. It was made out of wood, had her name etched into it, and the other side was etched with the seal of the Outer Palace. It didn’t guarantee their guild’s cooperation, but it was worth a try.
“How can I help you?” A regional manager asked her.
She explained her interest in salt, and asked him if she could see maps of the trade routes for all the salt providers. He thought it was a strange request, but had no reason to deny her. He showed her to their archive room, and let her freely look through anything related to salt.
“Does it seem strange to you that most of the salt in the Empire is routed through one particular region?” Chèri asked.
He stroked his chin in thought. “Now that you mention it, it wasn’t always that way.” He pulled out a map from last year. “You see? There used to be a dozen or so distribution centers across the Empire, but now there’s only three. The largest of the three is located here, and that’s why most of the salt is routed through there.”
“So… if something happened to the salt after it was harvested, but before it arrived in the local markets, it’s safe to guess that it probably happened there?” She hypothesized.
“I wouldn’t know. I supposed that it could also be tampered with during transport.”
“True… but wouldn’t that be hard? Tampering with one caravan load is fairly easy, but to tamper with all of them. Wouldn’t it be more convenient to tamper with it as it went through one place?”
“Tamper with?” The manager asked with a frown. “What are you suggesting?”
Chèri asked him to hold out his hand, and then placed two pinches of salt in his hand. “This is from a bag I bought yesterday. I spent all this afternoon gathering small samples from every vendor in the city, and if you lick that, you will see what I am getting at.”
The manager felt the small pile with his thumb and forefinger of one hand, and then tossed the sample in his mouth. “Sand!”
“It’s the same everywhere,” Chèri informed him. “Can I make copies of these two maps?”
“I’m going to have to alert my supervisors to this, but yes. Make your copies, and then I will take the originals plus a sample from your bag to my supervisor and let him know what is going on.”
Chèri pulled a spare scroll out of her pouch, and borrowed a pot of ink and a brush. She carefully drew out the map, and then added the old routes, and dots to indicate the old distribution centers. Then she carefully drew out the map a second time, and added the new routes to the three remaining centers.
The manager handed her a small pouch to pour some of her salt into, and then collected the maps.
“Can I also get a copy of the caravan schedules for the past few months? Maybe something here will indicate when the shipments started getting tampered with,” Chèri suggested.
The manager looked as if he just had an epiphany. “I can do even better!” He snatched her scroll from her, and wrote in an empty space that the caravan always arrives on certain days – give or take a few hours. Except that two weeks ago, it was mysteriously delayed for two days. He then signed it for authenticity.
“Thank you!” Chèri praised. “I’m going to write up a report, and submit this to the Department of Investigations with a suggestion to look into the matter.”
“Good, I’m going to bring this to my supervisor, and I’m certain that he’ll want to send a man to look into it as well. Maybe it would be best if the two investigators worked together,” the manager suggested.
“That’ll be up to the Minister of Investigations,” Chèri informed him, and then bowed before leaving.
She went straight to the Outer Palace, and spent the night in the office provided for the reserve Officials writing her report. She finished just after midnight, and fell asleep slumped over the table. An astonished gasp startled her awake the next morning.
“Don’t scare me like that!” A man yelled at her, a hand clutching his heart. “I thought you were dead or something!”
Chèri yawned, stretched, and rubbed her eyes. “Sorry,” she mumbled as she gathered up her report and the evidence, and headed to the Department of Investigations.
“Official Ruby!” The Minister greeted her pleasantly. She had spent most of her time in this department serving him tea and acting as his secretary.
“Minister…” Chèri greeted him with a bow. She straightened up, and then unloaded her burden onto his desk. “After coming across a mystery, and consulting with the Merchant Guild, I am submitting a report to suggest an investigation into the possible tampering of all the salt currently for sale on the market.”
The minister frowned, not liking that she dared to come to him unasked with an investigative report. He read through her scroll, and then looked over the accompanying scroll with the maps. Finally, he inspected the samples she had collected.
“I see…” he stated reluctantly. “I’ll submit the time you worked on this to the Department of Salary and Reimbursement. Then, I’ll assign someone to look into this.”
“A suggestion, if I may,” Chèri asked.
“Yes…?” He ground out with false patience.
Chèri smiled. “Whoever you assign may want to contact the Merchant Guild and work with whomever they plan to assign to look into it as well.”
The Minister nodded, and then sighed. He was secretly impressed with her initiative, and hoped to reward her. “I hear they are swamped in the Department of Civil Affairs, now that it is time to conduct the yearly reviews. You may have luck picking up some hours there.”
Chèri bowed in thanks, and left. I think I actually managed to be of some help!
Reiki paced his office in agitation. “I haven’t seen Chèri in weeks! I thought for sure that if none of the departments hired her she’d give up!”
He frowned, and glared at Ran. “Why aren’t they hiring her anyway?”
Ran glanced to Ko, who shook his head almost imperceptibly. Reiki saw this, and growled. Ran sighed.
“There’s a rumor… but it’s just a rumor mind you, that someone is threatening to fire whichever Minister gives her a permanent job.”
Reiki gaped for a moment, and then tossed the report he was reviewing aside. “I can’t possibly concentrate on this now!”
“Might I suggest a small break? Now that spring has arrived, it might be a good idea to sit in your garden before the rains come and keep you inside for a few weeks,” Ko said, hoping to lift the Emperor’s mood.
Mere minutes later, Reiki stared blankly at the tiny sprouts just poking through the ground. He wondered what Chèri was doing, and imagined her working in the Department of Civil Affairs. He even imagined her voice.
“Of all the idiotic, stupid, incompetent –!”
I wonder what she’s upset about?
Chèri entered the garden, and thrust a meat bun into his hands. She then withdrew a cup from the basket she carried, and filled it with tea – also from the basket – and set it in front of him.
“How dare that man call himself my uncle?! He’s literally swamped with work yet he won’t let me help out because supposedly I am the cause of his current predicament! The nerve!” She paced the garden in agitation.
Reiki watched her pace and wondered if he should ask her to sit down and join him for tea… since she went to the trouble of providing him with some.
“Like I had any idea that I would create a bunch of work for him when I told the Minister of Finance that there was a discrepancy in the Minister of Palace Affairs budget request! How was I to know that he’d order an audit?! How was I to know that the audit would uncover just enough evidence to provoke the Minister of Civil Affairs to launch an in depth review of the – bah! It’s enough to make my head spin!”
Chèri sat abruptly, and poured herself a cup of tea. “It’s really not my fault!”
Ran had the audacity to laugh as he helped himself to a meat bun and some tea from her basket. “So you’re the one behind that!” He and Ko had entered the garden after her to ensure that she wasn’t shouting about the Emperor.
Ko buried his face in his hands. “Father has been complaining about this for days. He’s even insisted that I work in his office tomorrow to help get things done.”
Chèri grabbed Ko by his collar and glared at him. “You tell him to go to Ganjin and bring his grumpy misdirected blame with him! Then tell him that if he wants help he should get on his hands and knees and beg me for forgiveness!”
Ko blushed at her suggestion, and carefully pried her hands off his wafuku. “I can’t tell my father that!”
Reiki laughed. “Maybe not… but I can.”
Chèri pictured the look on her uncle’s face as Reiki repeated what she had just said, and burst out laughing like an insane street performer. She let herself thoroughly enjoy the scene playing in her head until she was rolling on the ground. Then she sighed blissfully, and sat up.
“No, seriously, don’t tell him that,” she insisted. “I don’t want anyone saying that I asked the Emperor to tell someone to give me special treatment.”
Reiki reluctantly agreed. He had also been looking forward to the Minister’s face as he told him what to do. I may have to subtly suggest something similar.
“I could always make you my aide,” Reiki suggested. “I haven’t found one I can trust yet.”
“Tempting, but no,” Chèri sighed in frustration. “If I catch the person behind this, I’m going to beat him within an inch of his life!”
Reiki smiled, amused by the thought of this petite little lady carrying out such a threat. His smile faded and was replaced by an expression of seriousness.
“Well, if I catch whoever is sabotaging a decision I proposed, then I will have him stripped of Office, thoroughly investigated, and possibly arrested!” Reiki stated.
Chèri leaned across the table to deeply search his eyes for the truth. “Would you really?”
“Of course! If I don’t punish corruption, then how will I ever stop it from occurring in my palace?” Reiki questioned.
Chèri was so relieved to hear him say that that she kissed him. It lasted no more than a second, but it caused him to glare at her. She settled herself on her side of the table, and wondered why he was mad at her.
Ran and Ko sensed their lives were in danger if they didn’t find something else to do and quick. “Thank you for the snack, my Lady,” they blurted out in unison, and then Ko gestured for Ran to finish. “But we’ve just remembered that we have something important to do!” They vanished as quickly as possible.
Reiki still glared at Chèri.
“What?!” She finally demanded.
“You constantly tell me not to kiss you, but then have no problem kissing me? You said you would visit, but it’s been weeks since I last saw you. You’re struggling so hard to be a rank and file Official when you could easily marry me, and have an actual voice during the council meetings. Excuse me if I’m a bit confused and upset!”
“Reiki…” Chèri murmured. She had no idea what to say.
“Come here!” Reiki demanded, pointing to the spot next to him.
Chèri had a bad feeling about it, but slowly complied. She met his gaze, and tried to decide whether she should apologize for her thoughtlessness. Something in his eyes made her desperately want to run away.
Reiki’s expression softened as he tried to memorize every fleck in her brown eyes. “I missed you. I want you to promise that you will spend as much time with me as possible from now on. Even if you get busy, never let a day of rest pass without coming to see me.”
Chèri remained silent. She simply couldn’t make a promise she didn’t think she could keep. Her expression must have stated her thoughts because he slumped ever so slightly in sadness.
“Chèri…” he whispered, and placed both of his hands on the back of her neck before she could escape. He seized her lips in a demanding kiss, and refused to let her go no matter how much she protested. He noticed that her protests were weak, and that she put almost no effort into pushing him away.
Her lips parted, and he pulled her close as he deepened their kiss. She seemed to melt, and he followed her as she practically swooned. This meant that they were both on the ground, Reiki cradling her as he lay atop her. It had been so long since he had last bedded anyone that he forgot that she was not so easy, and tried to slide one hand inside the neckline of her houmongi.
She stiffened, and started to struggle in earnest. “No! Get off me!”
“I love you,” he whispered in her ear. “Why won’t you let me show you?”
Chèri stopped struggling, and turned her head away. She lay completely passive in his arms, but it was obvious that she was not willing. He sighed, and rested his head on her chest.
“I may be old enough to get married and do these things, but I’m not ready yet,” Chèri whispered.
Go To Part 5
Go To Part 5